Matthew Taylor

Sunday shows roundup: schools could see a ‘five-term year’

Sunday shows roundup: schools could see a 'five-term year'
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Gavin Williamson – 1 per cent NHS pay rise is result of ‘difficult economic challenges’

The Education Secretary was tasked with the government’s media duties this morning, on the day before schools are due to reopen for the vast majority of England’s children. However, with the Budget having taken place last week, another issue dominated the agenda. The government is offering a pay rise of 1 per cent for NHS staff, which is regarded by many in the profession as too low. Since inflation has been forecast as reaching 1.5 per cent later this year, unions have argued that the pay rise is in effect, a pay cut. Amid threats of strike action coming from the Royal College of Nursing, Sophy Ridge put it to Williamson that the government’s offer was not sustainable:

GW: Over a million NHS staff are going to be receiving pay increases over and above [1 per cent]. But also we are facing difficult economic challenges… We have decided to exempt the NHS from the public sector pay freeze, which is the only part of the public sector that has been exempted from that.

‘Many many thousands of schools’ will be tested on grades

Turning to schools, Ridge challenged Williamson over the robustness of the intended replacements for exams. The plans to place the ultimate emphasis on teachers to decide their pupils’ grades have raised concerns about grade inflation. Williamson insisted that the procedures being put in place would be able to maintain standards across the board:

GW: We’ve set out a very clear structure for teachers… There is going to be both internal inspection and… and external quality assurance coming from the exam boards. This is in the process of randomised audits of schools right across the country… Exam boards will be able to look at [any outliers] incredibly closely… Many many thousands of schools will be looked at as part of that process.

Children could see a ‘five-term year’ or longer school days

Ridge also asked Williamson about how the government was planning to make up for lost educational time, with students having been removed from the classroom for so much of the past year. She inquired about the options being considered by the government’s ‘catch-up tsar’ Sir Kevan Collins, which include the possibility of breaking up the traditional six week summer holiday:

GW: We’ll be looking at holidays, we’re looking at lengthening the school day, we’ve looking at a whole range of measures. And we’ve asked Sir Kevan Collins to leave no stone unturned… but it’s got to be evidence based.

Facemasks ‘work’ in reducing transmission in schools

Ridge confronted Williamson over the guidance being issued to schools on facemasks. It has been recommended by Public Health England that children in secondary schools should continue to wear masks in the classroom if there is not enough room to allow for 2 metre social distancing, though this is not mandatory. Williamson noticeably ducked a similar line of questioning from Andrew Marr about what would happen if pupils refused to wear the masks:

SR: It sounds a little bit like you’re saying, this is too difficult for us to work out… We’re just going to leave it for you to sort it out yourselves.

GW: We’ve set out very clear guidance as to how teachers are best able to approach this… Wearing a face mask is just one small element of all the protections that we’ve put in place… What we saw between September and Christmas was incredibly successful in reducing the number of incidences of Covid in schools… It works.

‘I will never make an apology’ for wanting to keep schools open

Andrew Marr asked Williamson if he could guarantee that schools would be re-opening after the Easter holidays, to which Williamson said yes. Marr noted that this had been the response when Williamson was asked back in January, right up until the point of the ensuing lockdown, and put it to Williamson that parents might have good reason not to have confidence in him:

AM: Are you sure that you are [the right man for the job]?

GW: …At every stage [of the pandemic] … my focus has been doing what is right for children. So I will… always be the first one to want to see children in schools. And I will never make an apology for wanting to keep our schools open and children having the benefit of a brilliant education in front of their teacher.

Jonathan Ashworth – Asking NHS staff to ‘pay for Covid’ is unfair

Marr also interviewed the Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth. Ashworth called for the government to honour its previous pledge to increase NHS pay by at least 2.1 per cent, the amount they legislated for 2 months before the pandemic hit:

JA: The government budgeted 2.1 per cent, and they passed that in legislation… Every Tory MP voted for 2.1 per cent in January last year… That should be the basis on which negotiations and discussions are now entered into… They’re now asking NHS staff to take a pay cut to pay for the Covid pressures. That is unfair.

Lisa Nandy – Tax rises ‘will choke off recovery’

Ridge spoke to the Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy ahead of key votes on the government’s budget this week. One of Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s plans to raise revenue is to freeze the bands at which earners pay income tax, so that they will not rise with inflation. Nandy told Ridge why Labour was not backing a tax rise when the Conservatives were:

LN: We think that now is absolutely the wrong time to be targeting low and middle income earning families… If you do that it means that they’re not going out and spending on the high streets, and the recovery is very fragile at the moment… If you start to target those families too quickly, what you’ll see then is the recovery choked off before it’s even begun.

We need ‘much more progress’ on Zaghari-Ratcliffe case

Ridge asked Nandy about the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian woman jailed in Iran on changes of ‘plotting to topple the Iranian government’ back in 2016. Zaghari-Ratcliffe has reportedly been freed from house arrest today, but is also believed to be awaiting a further trial next Sunday:

LN: It’s been frustratingly slow in relations to progress on this issue… There just hasn’t been enough focus and effort, not just on Nazanin’s case, which is heartbreaking, but also on the other British dual-Iranian nationals who are currently being held in Iran.

Susan Hopkins – Government should not pause children’s return to school

And finally, Marr spoke to Public Health England’s Dr Susan Hopkins, and asked about if the rate of reinfection (characterised as the ‘R number) increased significantly over the coming weeks, and what that should mean for schools:

SH: I don’t think we should pause children going back to school. We’ve got three weeks before the Easter holidays. I think we’ll have time to look at the data very carefully over that period… to see how things are responding… As more and more of the population get vaccinated… then we will be able to accept some cases in the community without needing further restrictions.

Written byMatthew Taylor

Matthew Taylor reviews the Sunday politics shows for The Spectator

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